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There’s been an overwhelming stampede in the direction of SUVs of late, the majority of that stampede heading in the direction of the smaller examples of the breed. Take a look at our story about initial Mazda CX-3 sales if you need further proof of that exploding segment.

That rush has left the medium SUV segment in a something of a no man’s land. Not as small as the major players, and even though the medium SUVs are bigger now than they ever were, they aren’t quite big enough to entice buyers who need a properly large vehicle for the family. Despite those factors, these two vehicles on test here – the 2015 Subaru Forester and 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander – still manage to make a strong case.

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That’s even more apparent when you factor in the Forester being available (finally) with an automatic transmission to match the diesel boxer engine. There’s no doubt the automatic/diesel pairing has been a long time coming and the Subaru faithful have wanted one for just as long.

The Forester’s success in rural areas where owners cover longer distances makes it a walk up start for a diesel engine too. While the Forester has been a favourite of the segment for some time now, the Outlander is the one that’s had a diesel engine option for longer, so it’s tough to argue which is the pretender to the crown.

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Interestingly, the Forester has always been praised for its sporting pretensions in a segment otherwise devoid of performance prowess. Things have changed though and the Forester has grown up, matured, maybe even softened a bit in the process, and now targets exactly the same buyer as the Outlander.

Both vehicles on test here have their strong points though, so let’s put them head to head.

Pricing

On test, we have the top variant of the Forester diesel (in a two-variant spread), which is referred to as the 2.0D-S Auto. Pricing for this model starts at $41,490, before the array of on-road costs and the only option fitted to our test car is the Subaru mat set, costing $168.00. A reverse camera is standard across the full Subaru Forester range.

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You can read our Subaru Forester Pricing and Specification story here.

The Outlander on the other hand, isn’t quite at the top of the range. We have the second from top 4WD XLS DiD, with pricing starting from $39,490. The only option for our test vehicle is metallic paint costing $550.00.

You can read our Mitsubishi Outlander Pricing and Specification story here.

In the cabin

As we noted at our initial launch drive, there is absolutely no doubt the new Forester represents a genuine step forward inside the cabin compared to the model it replaces. Trimmed in leather, the top spec 2.0D-S model delivers a premium feel behind the wheel that the old model could never deliver.

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The HVAC vent surrounds have been redesigned, although we didn’t love the brushed alloy trim used throughout the cabin. It doesn’t look cheap though, it’s more a design preference. Taste aside, the basic dash design and finish is more appealing than it was.

The centre console is likewise more attractively designed than it was and it’s easy for newcomers to decipher the location of the main controls without too much familiarisation. The Forester has a more basic look and feel than the segment leaders, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. I appreciated the utilitarian nature of the controls and switchgear during my time behind the wheel.

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Forward visibility has always been a Forester strong point and it’s an easy SUV to pilot around town. This segment makes a lot of sense around the city when the interior space is proportionately larger than the external physical size of the vehicle and the Forester is a winner in that department.

The Forester is comfortable in the front and second rows regardless of how tall you are and while it’s not quite as spacious as the Outlander, Forester still has more than enough room for the average family or conversely four or five adults. It retains that signature Forester ‘tough as nails’ feel that leaves you in no doubt it can take the abuse a family will throw its way over the longer term – another reason rural buyers have always loved Forester.

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The leather-trimmed seats are comfortable, even when you’ve spent a fair amount of time behind the wheel, and even the second row is comfortable with a squab that’s deep enough for longer legs and a backrest that’s not too upright.

Forester’s luggage area is wide – meaning loading and unloading is easy – and it’s not compromised by the mechanics of a third row sucking up valuable space either. With the second row in position, Forester has 422 litres of storage space. Fold the second row down, and that grows to 1474 litres. Forester has always been a favourite with surfers, bicycle riders and people into sports thanks to the flexible luggage space.

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In the cabin, the Outlander achieves an immediate win with seven seats as standard equipment on this model. The third row won’t accommodate fully-grown adults in comfort, but it’s a feature the Forester doesn’t have nonetheless. The second row will however, accommodate three adults if need be. The Outlander feels a little larger everywhere than the Forester and it’s evident most when you’re in the cabin.

The Outlander on test here doesn’t get leather seats, but that doesn’t mean it can’t compete with the leather-accented cabin of the Forester. The Outlander’s material trim looks to be hard wearing, it’s comfortable and never feels too hot or too cold like some synthetic materials can. Some buyers will prefer leather, but the model above this one that features leather trim, costs an extra five grand for that privilege.

With the third row in the up position, you get 128 litres of storage space. That grows to 477 litres with that third row down, and right out to 1608 litres with the second row folded down.

Infotainment

Pairing your phone with the Forester’s Bluetooth system is easy enough, and once paired, the connection is clear and concise. Audio streaming worked well too. The screen measures in at seven inches and features pinch, swipe and zoom in/zoom out functionality much like a tablet or iDevice. While those features work well enough, I’m not sure they are something you’ll use too much in a vehicle, especially on the move if you need to make a quick adjustment to the mapping for example.

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When we ventured off-road, we did use the pinch functionality to zoom in and out of the map to take a closer look at where we were headed in the national park. That said, we were stationary at the time and the system was responsive.

The screen is clear on the move and in any light as well, and the image from the reverse camera was also crystal clear. We used the reverse camera quite a bit off-road too – it comes in handy when you need to make any tight moves on narrow tracks.

With all that said, there’s still something about the Forester’s infotainment system that doesn’t seem right up to date with the segment leaders. If we take CX-5 as the standard-setter in this regard, the Forester’s system is harder to use, less intuitive, and not as premium feeling. It’s certainly better than any Forester before it, but it’s not as impressive as the best in the segment. There’s nothing especially glaring that’s wrong with the Subaru system, it just isn’t as accomplished as it could be.

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The Mitsubishi is likewise in this segment, behind the pace. The system is controlled via a 6.1-inch colour touchscreen, which is clear enough and legible, but somewhat old in appearance, especially the graphics.

Pairing your phone via Bluetooth is needlessly complex and not especially easy to work out either. Once paired though, call clarity was excellent and audio streaming worked well too. Like the Forester, the Outlander’s system does what it needs to and it’s reliable enough, it just isn’t premium enough or well thought out enough to really take it up the segment leaders.

The Outlander’s reverse camera screen is clear and wide enough to be genuinely useful. Around town, you’ll appreciate being able to manoeuvre into and out of tight parking spots using the camera.

Under the bonnet

For the first time, the Forester is available with a diesel engine and automatic transmission. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged boxer diesel has been around for some time now, but previously it was only matched to an (excellent) manual gearbox. Paired here to a CVT (with manual mode), the oiler chugs out 108kW of power at 3600rpm and 350Nm of torque between 1600rpm-2400rpm.

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Subaru quotes a 0-100km/h time of 9.9 seconds and the ADR fuel claim is 6.4L/100km on the combined cycle. On test, we covered just over 300km and saw an indicated average of 8.6L/100km. The comparatively small 60-litre fuel tank still gives the Forester a whopping touring range, with a theoretical 800km between stops based on our average consumption. As tested, the Subaru Forester weighs in at 1667kg.

Drive these two back to back and there’s no doubt the Forster is the punchier of the two turbo diesels on test. Off the mark, there’s virtually no lag whatsoever and the Forester feels much more inclined to get up to speed rapidly than the Outlander. Where the Forster encourages you to shoot into gaps and across traffic gaps into side streets, the Outlander is a more relaxed cruiser, which takes some time to get moving. Roll on acceleration however, sees a slight advantage go to the Outlander.

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The Subaru diesel remains the only boxer diesel engine in use and it’s a flexible unit regardless of road speed. It’s matched perfectly to the CVT as well, one rare example of an otherwise soulless gearbox working beautifully. There’s none of the fizzing or buzzing we’ve found with other CVTs – a refreshing change for a transmission I’d usually run a million miles from. CVTs state their case when it comes to efficiency, but for the most part, if you love driving, you won’t love a CVT.

As the engine revs rise to the short redline, there’s nothing in the way of nasty noises entering the cabin either. The theoretical ‘steps’ within the transmission give back some of the conventional gearing feel, and it’s refreshing not to be assaulted by the sound you’d usually associate with a slipping clutch.

At start up, just like we noticed at launch, there’s very little diesel chatter or vibration as the boxer settles into an idle. As the revs rise, the insulation that’s been added to the engine and transmission is apparent, namely due to the lack of noise entering the cabin. At 100km/h on coarse chip country roads, the Forester is impressively refined and quiet.

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The Outlander is also powered by a refined diesel engine. Where Subaru has opted for a CVT, Mitsubishi has retained a conventional six-speed automatic, which according to the company is better equipped to handle the diesel’s torque.

As you’d expect, the Outlander’s slightly larger 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine trumps the Forester’s in both power and torque outputs, although not by much. The Mitsubishi engine makes 110kW of power at 3500rpm and 360Nm of torque between 1500rpm-2750rpm.

The Outlander’s ADR fuel claim is 6.2L/100km. Like the Forester, we covered the same 300km plus in the Outlander and our indicated return was 8.0L/100km. The real world fuel figures back up the ADR claims, which show the Outlander as being more frugal and like the Forester, a 60-litre fuel tank means there’s a lengthy theoretical touring range for owners covering long distances. As tested, the Outlander weighs 1630kg.

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Buyers who enjoy their driving will appreciate the choice of a standard automatic by Mitsubishi despite the Forester’s CVT being so accomplished. The Outlander’s diesel engine is also quiet at startup and once settled into idle.

The gearbox shifts precisely regardless of how hard you’re working the engine and the ratios work well with the broad torque spread. Where the Forester is more rapid off the mark, the Outlander gets up to speed more gently, but retains plenty of punch once there. There’s a level of refinement under the Mitsubishi’s bonnet, that leaves me in no doubt you’d be smart to opt for the diesel if you cover plenty of kilometres commuting in the course of a year.

Ride and Handling

A few CarAdvice testers commented that the Forester’s ride is a little on the firm side on harsh urban roads, and that seems to be the result of the balance Subaru has taken between comfort and outright handling ability.

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Shod with Bridgestone 225/55/R18 tyres, the Forester is capable of hooking into a corner with the exact amount of ability you expect given the brand’s performance heritage. You might never desire to drive your diesel Forester so enthusiastically, but it’s reassuring to know you can.

Around town, I found the Forester to be firm without ever being uncomfortable. It’s an interesting balancing act in this segment. Subaru has a proud sporting heritage and the company feels the need to maintain that heritage to a certain degree with Forester even if that means sacrificing a small element of outright comfort. The company could soften out the Forester’s ride and make it more compliant, but it wouldn’t handle as well or be as assured at higher speeds through the bends.

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While I agree with some of my fellow testers that the suspension tune is on the firm side, it’s only noticeable on consistently poor surfaces. The bigger and more bloated an SUV gets, the less engaging it is to drive too, and we wouldn’t want the Forester to head down that road.

Offroad, and onto some forest trails for our photo shoot, the Forester continues to impress in a handling sense. Corrugated dirt is dispatched without the Forester ever feeling loose or uncertain. You can fire it into and out of slippery, scrabbly corners with surety and the AWD system ensures there’s plenty of grip at all times.

There’s a reason rural buyers have loved the Forester for years. Wet roads, dirt tracks between towns, and plenty of mud are no match for the Forester’s competent AWD system and resultant grip. There’s something to be said for not having to switch into an AWD lock mode too, the Forester is always ready for whatever surface you encounter.

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The Mitsubishi Outlander surprised us with its ability to iron out poor road surfaces while still maintaining balance and handling ability. It’s a definite step forward from the previous model, which wasn’t an SUV that you’d ever describe as being dynamic. On test, the Outlander was wearing 225/55/R18 Good Year Eagle LS tyres.

Off-road, we selected the ‘4WD Lock’ mode via the console-mounted switch and the Outlander was just as composed on slippery dirt and clay as the Forester. Where the Subaru skipped over the worst of the bumps and ruts, the Outlander soaked them up a little better and with more composure. You can have a bit of fun behind the wheel of either vehicle on dirt tracks, and the Outlander gets the basic job done easily enough as well.

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New Outlander is no racecar either, but coupled with it’s quieter and more comfortable cabin, the new cosseting ride is impressive. The revised suspension system, which is assisted by a stiffer chassis, improves every element of the ride and handling experience. The retuned electrically assisted power steering is sharper too, much more direct than the old model and never feels too heavy or too light.

Where the Forester sacrifices an element of bump absorption for handling prowess, the Outlander goes the other way. Its body control isn’t quite up to the standard of the Forester, but there’s a level of comfort behind the wheel of the Outlander that the Forester can’t quite match.

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That extra notch of comfort is a definite strong point in the Outlander’s favour in my book. The question for buyers in this segment is whether you value outright comfort or outright handling. These two medium SUVs approach the same buyer from a slightly different angle in that regard and there’s no right or wrong answer. Which vehicle you prefer will come down to driving preference.

Warranty and Servicing

The Forester gets a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, with three years or 75,000km of capped price servicing. The first two services at 12,500km/six months and 25,000km/12 months will cost $304.89 each. Then comes 37,500km/18 months for $388.95, 50,000km/24 months for $547.95, 62,500km/30 months for $508.16 and finally 75,000km/36 months for $388.95.

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Mitsubishi has changed its warranty structure slightly, and new Outlander is covered by a five-year, 100,000km warranty, down from the previous 130,000km. Maintenance is recommended every 12 months or 15,000km and capped-price servicing prices vary between models with coverage running for four years. The diesel model on test here costs $450 for the first service, and then $550 for each service in the following three years.

Verdict

It’s an extremely tight tussle this one. If you value driving dynamics and the heritage of AWD, then you’re going to prefer the Forester. If you prefer a more comfortable ride around town, and you need a little extra space – especially the flexibility of the third row – then the Outlander will appeal.

Both vehicles here genuinely have their strong points and neither does anything particularly badly either. Both are better for the diesel engine and accomplished automatic gearboxes especially given the real world economy figures we saw.

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At launch we scored the Forester half a point ahead of the Outlander overall (7.5 to 7.0) and, while our week behind the wheel for a full test was extremely close, that score difference remains the case. Those scores reflect the respective vehicles’ standing overall in the segment too, where they can’t quite take the fight up to the CX-5 ultimately.

There are areas where the Outlander is better than the Forester and vice versa. While I agree the Forester is a little firmer around town, I appreciate its balance between ride and handling. I also appreciate the advancements that Mitsubishi has made with the new Outlander – especially in the cabin. If I had to pick though, I’d have the Subaru – but only just.

Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.



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